realclearworld Newsletters: Mideast Memo

Donald Trump's Mideast Myopia
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Donald Trump's Mideast Myopia
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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It took very little time, following this week's horrific terrorist attacks in Brussels, for tragedy to give way again to talking points in this heated American election season. While President Barack Obama suddenly found himself on the defensive for attending a baseball game shortly after the attacks, Republican presidential contender Donald Trump wasted little time in returning to one of his campaign's preferred targets: Muslims.

"When [Muslims] see trouble they have to report it. They are not reporting it," said the billionaire real estate mogul in an interview with a British morning news program. "They are absolutely not reporting it and that is a big problem."

The target of Trump's ire quickly shifted from the Muslims among us to those concentrated in the greater Middle East. In an interview with Bloomberg's Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, the GOP frontrunner lamented that Muslims the world over do not respect the United States, and suggested -- among other things -- that one way to gain that respect might be the threat of a tactical nuclear weapon again the Islamic State group.

"The first thing you have to do is get them to respect the West and respect us," Trump told Bloomberg. "And if they're not going to respect us it's never going to work. This has been going on for a long time."

Although he wouldn't rule out any options as president, Trump was quick to add that it's important to keep America's enemies guessing -- a kind of strategic "unpredictability."

Not a place, but a problem

Donald Trump is, in truth, a candidate with very little to say about the Muslim world -- and especially about the Middle East. And although his more controversial comments tend to make the headlines, when it comes to the Mideast, there isn't, as they say, much of a there there.

"Trump's initial positions (some of which he's walked back) are extreme and reckless," writes Mideast expert Aaron David Miller. "Yet at the same time, beneath the bravado, bluster, and bombast, Trump's views on a variety of other issues are actually quite cautious and pragmatic."

Indeed, while Trump's speech this week before the annual gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, was full of bromides on the deficiencies of Palestinian culture and the dangers of Iranian hegemony, his intended policy proposals remained rather opaque. Though pledging in his speech before the pro-Israel crowd to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal, Trump has also stated that he would treat the deal sealed last year between Tehran and world powers like any other bad business contract, and grudgingly but strictly enforce it.

The Republican hopeful's rhetoric on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been equally inconsistent. Trump pledged neutrality on the matter as recently as December, even going so far as to question Israel's commitment to peace. This week, however, Trump insisted that he would not allow the United Nations to "impose" any kind of a deal on the Jewish state, adding that his own well-documented, and often cited, deal-making prowess would enable him to reach a long-elusive peace deal between the two parties.

Trump's speech to AIPAC was typical of a presidential aspirant: heavy on histrionics and light on substance. In this sense, Donald Trump's policy proposals at this still-early stage in the 2016 presidential race are far from unique. His fluid thoughts on the Middle East, on the other hand, suggest he has little interest in a corner of the world that continues to play an important part in U.S. foreign policy and national security.

Trump often invokes the Middle East as a clever rhetorical device that allows him to pivot back to a message really intended for domestic consumption. The United States builds schools in Baghdad, Trump argues, but not in Brooklyn or Baltimore; Dubai can build a world-class airport, but Newark, NJ, cannot. Trump -- much like President Obama did in his recent interview with The Atlantic -- has regularly expressed dissatisfaction with America's traditional alliances in the Middle East, framing them, perhaps unsurprisingly, as bad deals.

"We spent billions of dollars on Saudi Arabia and they have nothing but money, and I say, ‘Why?'" Trump exclaimed during a Monday sit-down with the Washington Post editorial board.

Trump's America First refrain is attractive to a sizeable amount of Americans who feel left behind by globalization and by a U.S. economy that increasingly caters to a college-educated workforce. His more simplistic solutions -- such as the possibility of nuking ISIS, or seizing Iraqi oil fields for American coffers -- assuage the frustrations of a certain subsection of the American public that views the Middle East not so much as a place, but as a problem to be dealt with and disregarded.

"I don't think we should be nation building anymore. I think it's proven not to work," Trump told the Post. "I just think that we have values in our country that we have to promote. We have a country that is in bad shape, it's in bad condition."

Trump's predecessors didn't feel all too differently, not at first. President George W. Bush, campaigning back in the halcyon days of 2000, also bemoaned the pitfalls of nation-building. Events, of course, caught up with the 43rd president, who would grow into a devotee of nation-building and democracy promotion in the Muslim world following the 9/11 attacks. And while Bush had high but ultimately futile hopes of re-engineering the region, President Obama, conversely, had planned on pivoting the United States away from the Mideast, only to learn that the region has a knack for luring back the American superpower.

That superpower, furthermore, requires a great deal of support from the Muslim Middle East.

"Across the world, it is the intelligence from Muslim governments that helps prevent hundreds of terror plots. It is the reporting from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Tunisia, and other countries that save lives," argues Ed Husain of the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics. "They don't assist the West for recognition and respect, but do so because [ISIS] and Jihadists threaten Islam and Muslims."

A President Trump would inherit a Middle East dealing with pockets of potential state collapse and widespread instability and violence. Such challenges will require adept American leadership, and a great deal of credibility among the many Muslims fighting ISIS and its ilk on the ground.

Judging from his rhetoric, Donald Trump would bring little of either to the Mideast table as president.

The Trump campaign could not be reached for comment.

More on this:

America's Big Problem in the Middle East -- RealClearWorld

How Trump Helps ISIS -- RealClearPolitics

Trump No Longer 'Neutral' on Israel -- Al-Monitor

Mideast Grows Wary of Trump, Despite Ventures -- Associated Press


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